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Five Women Who Shaped Whisk(e)y

Rita and Masataka Taketsuru - Image source: The Japan Times


In light of International Whisk(e)y Day this week (27th March), we’ve dug through the wonderful history of the spirit to highlight five women who were instrumental in shaping the industry. Working in a male dominated trade in a time when women were ‘advised’ to stay out of the workplace, each of these women showed incredible resolve and intelligence, and their influence on whisk(e)y can still be felt today.

Helen (died 1874) and Elizabeth Cumming (died 1894) – Cardhu Distillery

Though official records state that John Cumming was the founder of Cardhu, it has since been revealed that his wife Helen was rather the brain behind the operation. Not only was she responsible for the production of the whisky, the bookkeeping and the sales, but it was her business savvy and quirky ways of avoiding alcohol taxes that kept the distillery afloat even in hard times.

Stories tell of Helen disguising the distillery as a bakery to auditors whilst raising the alarm to neighbouring producers and walking 20 miles with bladders of whisky tied inside her skirt, aware that authorities would not search a woman.

Although Helen and her husband passed on the distillery to their son Lewis, it was Lewis’ wife Elizabeth who ended up taking over the business when her husband died suddenly. During her time at the helm, Elizabeth tripled the amount of whisky produced to over 1,600 gallons by 1884. This spurred interest from Johnnie Walker & Sons, who began purchasing the majority of Cardhu’s output to use in its blends.

This then paved the way for multinational beverages company Diageo to eventually buy the distillery as well as assume the number of brands that can be traced back to Helen’s recipes, including Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, Bulleit, Seagram’s, George Dickel, Caol Ila, Talisker, Lagavulin, Oban, J&B, Bell’s, Buchanan’s and Cardhu.

Jessie ‘Rita’ Roberta Taketsuru (1896 – 1961) – The Mother of Japanese Whisky

When a young Japanese man came to Scotland to learn the art of whisky, the life of one Jessie ‘Rita’ Roberta Cowan was set to change forever. The man was Masataka Taketsuru and he became the tenant of Rita’s parents, who themselves crafted whisky.

After a whirlwind romance, Rita and Masataka wed and moved back to Japan in 1920. Masataka began working with Kotobukiya’s, later to become Suntory, on the creation of their first whisky plant in Yamazaki, before leaving to establish his own distillery in the Japanese ‘highlands’ of Yoichi – Nikka distillery. Rita was instrumental to the business in those early years, providing both moral and financial support to Masataka and connecting him with investors through her ties to whisky back in Scotland.

Although business took off in World War II as Nikka whisky became the tipple of the Japanese navy, Rita was marginalised by the community for being British and was even investigated by the local authorities for being a potential spy. Nowadays though, Rita is celebrated in Japan and has been immortalised in both a TV series about her life and relationship with Masataka as well as a manga comic.

Bessie Williamson (1910-1982) – Owner of Laphroaig

Bessie Williamson’s journey into whisky was different to most during her era. She was born the daughter of a Glaswegian clerk and, after attending university and working a range of jobs, began working at Laphroaig distillery as a shorthand typist/secretary for a summer job.

Bessie fell in love with Islay and the distillery, and what was originally thought of as a holiday for a couple of months soon turned into 40 years and a successful whisky career. During that time, she rose through the ranks by first managing the office before taking over the majority of the responsibilities from owner Ian Hunter when he suffered a stroke in 1938.

When Ian died, he left Bessie £5,000, ownership of the business and the small islet of Texa. Bessie was extremely popular with the Islay community, and was known for creating jobs for young men at the distillery even when an opening didn’t exist. Despite selling the distillery to American company Long John Distillers to receive funding for modernisation, Bessie continued to manage Laphroaig and keep its high reputation until her retirement in 1972.

Ethel Greig ‘Miss Babs’ Robertson (1903 – 1985) – Founder of Edrington

Whisky was in Ethel’s blood from birth, with her grandfather William Alexander Robertson, founder of the Robertson & Baxter – the Glasgow firm of brokers and blenders, the Clyde Bonding Company and the Highland Distillers. His apprentices had included notable names such as Sir Alexander Walker and John Dewar Jr.

These businesses were passed down to Ethel’s father James who, upon his death, gave them to his three spinster daughters. Ethel, the youngest and most vivacious, was elected by the sisters to represent them in business and she proved a sound leader. Not only did she ward off a series of fierce takeover attempts by the large American firm Seagram’s, she also had the foresight to protect the sisters’ inheritance by creating a holding company and a charitable trust.

As the sisters began to age, Ethel was painfully aware that the death duties at the time were at 80% of the estate. She made the move to establish a holding company into which would be transferred the sisters’ capital in the family businesses and a charitable trust, where all the shares received would be gifted.

The holding company was named after one of the Robertson family farms, Edrington, and the charitable trust was named after the family. Edrington is now one of Scotch whisky’s largest owners and operators, owning the Macallan and Highland Park distilleries as well as Famous Grouse blended whisky. Today, The Robertson Trust is the biggest charitable trust in Scotland, distributing around £20 million to over 500 causes each year.